On the Border

South Texas border tour sheds light on complex immigration situation

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Fourteen people—nine men and five women, all from Mexico—stand shoulder to shoulder in front of a judge in federal court in Brownsville, Texas, on a Friday morning.

Apprehended in either Hidalgo or Cameron County within the five days prior to their court appearance, all either swam or rafted across the Rio Grande River, entering the United States at a place other than a designated port of entry, thus violating the law.

Their hands are shackled in front, with a large chain encircling their waists. One woman’s feet are chained, too, the links clinking unceremoniously as she is summoned to the front.

Each person wears a headset, through which an interpreter speaks.

“Did you understand the nature of the charges against you, the max sentence and fine, and your individual rights?” the judge at the Reynaldo G. Garza and Filemon B. Vela U.S. Courthouse asks. “Did you discuss those rights in Spanish with your attorney?”

When I agreed to go on a South Texas border tour with Mennonite Central Committee, I did not know what to expect. Prior to the trip it had been easy to dismiss the immigration situation at the border as something happening “far away.” But when a person goes and sees, it changes things. Putting faces, names and stories to people in the courtroom that day was one of many opportunities to humanize the situation on the border.

I’m still attempting to fit all the pieces together, but in a week on the border, I gained a collection of stories, each one adding a perspective to a growing understanding of a complex situation with no easy answers.

In Texas, the U.S./Mexico border lies in the middle of the Rio Grande River. Photo: Janae Rempel

 

The court proceedings I observed are part of Operation Streamline, which the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice put into place in 2005 as a deterrent, which prompts the question, “What is an effective deterrent?”

Under Operation Streamline, migrants—as many as 70 per day in several courts along the border—are brought before a judge in federal court. A person’s sentence for entering the country illegally may include time in federal prison based on the number of times he or she has entered the U.S., followed by deportation. Because this is a federal proceeding, the judge cannot make an immigration ruling.

We hear but a snippet of their stories.

Some have come for family, including a 24-year-old woman who shakes as she stands before the judge. She crossed the border to see her children, who are U.S. citizens living in Brownsville. She sobs as she leaves the courtroom, an image that’s stayed in my mind. Only later do we learn that her husband was seated in the courtroom that morning. I want to hear more of her story.

Others have come for work. Two cousins, both 19, were headed to Atlanta to work in order to build a home in Oaxaca, Mexico. A 23-year-old father of three was on his way to Mission, Texas, to find employment to save money to help his family. It’s his fourth apprehension and second conviction in five days.

For nine, this is their first conviction. Re-entry into the U.S. is considered a felony, but by pleading guilty, a person’s sentence is lowered to a misdemeanor. All 14 plead guilty—culpable—and are sentenced to five, 10 or 15 days in federal prison, followed by deportation.

Drug movement is also a reality of life on the border, and earlier that morning, we saw seven men stand before the judge with varying allegations, including improper entry into the U.S. and re-entry. Drugs were also a factor—33 kilograms worth. The judge schedules a preliminary hearing, and if guilty, these men could face 10 years to life in prison.

In courthouses like the Reynaldo G. Garza and Filemon B. Vela U.S. Courthouse in Brownsville, Texas, as many as 70 migrants per day are brought before a federal judge under Operation Streamline. Photo: Don Morris

Participants

Sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee, the border tour came about when MCC U.S. executive director Ron Byler reached out to USMB national director Don Morris after reading Morris’ September/October column in the Christian Leader, “We want more of Revelation 7,” a reflection on unity and diversity among the USMB family.

Morris expressed an interest in learning more about immigration at the Texas/Mexico border. So, MCC arranged a border tour for Mennonite Brethren, co-led by Saulo Padilla, of MCC’s Immigration Education National Program, and Ana Hinojosa, an immigration coordinator with MCC Central States. Byler, and Jesus Cruz, MCC U.S. associate program director, also participated.

Mennonite Brethren participants in addition to Morris were Aaron Hernandez, LAMB district minister; Joaquin Gutierrez, LAMB conference chair; Jill Schellenberg, assistant professor of criminology and restorative justice at Tabor College and MB representative for MCC; Maricela Chavez, a therapist at Fresno Pacific University; and myself.

Group photo
From left: Saulo Padilla, Ana Hinojosa, Janae Rempel, Jill Schellenberg, Ron Byler, Jesus Cruz, Don Morris, Maricela Chavez. Not pictured: Aaron Hernandez, Joaquin Gutierrez. Photo: Saulo Padilla.

 

What follows is not a comprehensive summary of the places we visited Jan. 29 through Feb. 3, but an attempt at compiling stories to gain a broader understanding of life on the border, including who is coming to the U.S. and why, how migrants get here, individual stories of those who have come, and application. Read about each in the sections that follow.

ProBAR: Navigating the legal process

Harlingen, Texas

A visit to the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR) in Harlingen helps us understand not only what may prompt a child to leave his or her country but also the legal process children face upon arrival in the U.S.

Founded by the American Bar Association in 1989, ProBAR provides legal services for asylum seekers and immigrants and gives “Know Your Rights” presentations in shelters and detention centers. Jorge Quintanilla, supervising paralegal, tells us specifically about the ProBAR Children’s Project, founded in 2003.

According to Quintanilla, common reasons children give for immigrating to the U.S. include violence, persecution from gangs or drug traffickers, poverty, lack of education and employment, lack of family support, abuse, family reunification and natural disasters, among other things.

Jorge Quintanilla, ProBAR supervising paralegal, explains the ProBAR Children's Project, founded in 2003.
Jorge Quintanilla, ProBAR supervising paralegal, explains the ProBAR Children’s Project, founded in 2003. Photo: Janae Rempel

 

Before the practice of separating families at the border, one third of children coming to the U.S. were unaccompanied and the other two-thirds came with their parents. Between April and June 2018, during President Trump’s “Zero Tolerance” Immigration policy, even children who came with their parents were separated and became, legally, unaccompanied minors. Today, adults traveling with children remain together, provided they can prove their relationship through birth certificates or government-issued ID. Families may spend three to five days in Border Patrol/ICE custody before their release. Adults unable to provide verification are separated from children, which is sometimes how traffickers are identified.

Some children come to the U.S. alone. Unaccompanied children apprehended by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) immigration officials are placed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Children may be in a Border Patrol station (CBP) for 72 hours prior to placement in a shelter, but do not have the right to a government-appointed attorney.

Children face both legal issues with DHS and custody issues with ORR. Being released from ORR does not solve a child’s immigration status, however; he or she must still see an immigration judge. The standards for a child’s release are higher than in the past, with sponsors required to consent to fingerprinting, Quintanilla says, because when standards were lowered, some children were trafficked.

A child’s average length of stay in a shelter is four to eight weeks. ProBAR, who has 10 attorneys on staff, interviews children and conducts legal screenings in shelters to determine who has a good chance of winning his or her case and also gives presentations to explain to children what will happen in court. ProBAR also assists people who win their cases with health, taxes and school.

According to CBP statistics on arrivals for fiscal year 2017, of the 41,435 unaccompanied children, 14,827 were from Guatemala (36 percent). Photo: Janae Rempel

 

In fiscal year 2017, 7,726 unaccompanied children were in the care of ORR/Division of Children’s Services (DCS). Of those, 80 percent were reunified with their family, 11 percent were returned to their home country, 7 percent aged out, 1 percent had an immigration status change and 1 percent ran away.

Guatemala is one of three Central American countries from which a majority of people come.

According to CBP statistics on arrivals for fiscal year 2017, 36 percent of the 41,435 unaccompanied children were from Guatemala (14,827), 22 percent from El Salvador (9,143), 21 percent from Mexico (8,877) and 19 percent from Honduras (7,784). The number of children coming from Mexico exceeds that of those coming from any of the Central American countries, but Border Patrol treats children from Mexico as a revolving door, quickly returning them to Mexico, Quintanilla says.

Statistics from October 2017 to July 2018 indicate 41,347 unaccompanied children arrived in the U.S., a number that is on pace to nearly double by the end of the fiscal year, Quintanilla says. Of those, 19,200 children are from Guatemala (46 percent).

Watch this UN Refugee Agency video to learn more.

Guatemalan Consulate: Advocating for children

McAllen, Texas

Guatemala produces some of the highest numbers of people in the Rio Grande Valley, says Consul Cristy Andrino during our Wednesday afternoon visit to the Guatemalan Consulate in McAllen.

The Consulate saw more than 50,000 people last year. According to an ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations Report, 33,570 people from Guatemala were deported in fiscal year 2017, a statistic second only to Mexico (128,765).

Guatemalan Consul Cristy Andrino says Guatemala produces some of the highest numbers of people in the Rio Grande Valley. Photo: Janae Rempel

 

Visiting the Consulate opens my eyes to the unique challenges children present at the border. There are 26 shelters in the Rio Grande Valley, soon to be 32, housing as many as 1,000 Guatemalan children. Children are placed in shelters when they come to the U.S. unaccompanied, or when their relationship to the adults with whom they came cannot be proven through birth certificates or other forms of identification during the three to five days a family may spend in Border Patrol/ICE custody.

When an adult’s relationship to a child is unable to be verified, children are separated from adults for their safety, Andrino says, listing two reasons. First, some adults in detention centers have criminal records. Second, a coyote smuggler, also known as pollero, who acts as a guide in crossing the border may falsely tell migrants if they come with a child, it will be easier to get into the U.S. This means some children are not related to those with whom they come, and Border Patrol must confirm the relationship between child and adult at the processing center.

Our co-leader, Saulo Padilla, expands on the topic. According to U.S. law, if a person comes with a child, there is protection for that child, so some people kidnap children and rent them to others to bring to the U.S., he says. There is conflict over this issue, as some people advocate for the expedited release of children from shelters, and others say if children are released too soon, there is not adequate time to ensure children are being released to family.

In a shelter, children receive six meals a day, clothing and toiletries, Andrino says, adding that some shelters are better than others. The purpose of a shelter is to find a sponsor for each child, who must agree to appear in court. Verifying the validity of a sponsor may take weeks, a process lengthened by the reality that a sponsor may not submit to fingerprinting. Children may stay in shelters as long as a year, Andrino says. If a child turns 18 in a shelter, he or she is sent to long-term foster care or to a detention center to continue the process as an adult.

Migrants will go before an immigration judge and likely face deportation, unless granted asylum or temporary residency. Part of the role of the Consulate is assisting adults and children in navigating their cases, helping with family reunification and providing materials to educate children on the court process. A clinical psychologist also conducts interviews and looks for victims of abuse.

More children are allowed to stay in the U.S. than adults, provided they follow the process, Andrino says, adding that last year, 150 adolescents were returned to Guatemala.

Catholic Charities RGV – Humanitarian Respite Center: Seeking asylum

McAllen, Texas

Walking in the front doors of the Catholic Charities RGV–Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, I am immediately overwhelmed by the magnitude of people crowding the hallways of the building, a former nursing home. People line hallways to our left and right. A child carries a red plastic chair above his head as we walk past the reception desk and down a third hallway, navigating rows of people on either side—young children, teenagers, middle aged and even a few elderly.

Four hundred and fifty asylum seekers are receiving care at the respite center on the day of our visit, 350 of which arrived that day—approximately 170 families. The volunteer-run center, which can accommodate as many as 700 people a day, provides food, clothing, showers, medical care and laundry facilities for the busloads of asylum seekers ICE drops off at the front door each day.

Approximately 350 asylum seekers were dropped off at the Catholic Charities RGV – Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen on the day of our visit. Photo: Don Morris

 

Asylum is a protection granted to foreign nationals either already in the U.S. or asylum seekers who have come to the border and meet the criteria for being a refugee. According to the Refugee Act of 1980, a refugee is someone “who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

The U.S. is legally obligated to provide protection for those who qualify as refugees. Two paths to obtain refugee status are as a resettled refugee from abroad, or by coming to the U.S. as an asylum seeker.. As an alternative to detention, many asylum seekers are affixed with GPS ankle monitors to ensure they appear in court . The respite center is a short-term facility; asylum seekers stop here for up to 48 hours before heading to their family sponsor. After leaving the respite center, families have two weeks to reach their destination and must stay within a 75-mile radius of that location. According to a Denver Post article, although daily costs for electronic monitoring are lower than the cost of detention, because an immigrant may be tracked for more than eight years, as opposed to the average detention stay of 40 days, cost is ultimately higher: $5,500 for an immigrant remaining in detention; $16,000 for an immigrant released to be monitored.

This volunteer keeps a refrigerator stocked with 200 sandwiches to be given to asylum seekers when they leave the humanitarian respite center. Photo: Janae Rempel

 

We pause at the kitchen, where people eating steaming bowls of soup have gathered around six tables. Volunteers here serve three meals a day. In a room off the dining area, a volunteer layers ham and cheese between slices of bread, filling a refrigerator stocked with 200 sandwiches to be given to families when they leave. Bread and snacks are two of the center’s greatest needs, says volunteer Cesar Mata, in addition to clothing.

In a room off the main hall, two children lay on their stomachs on a pile of blue mats, hands propped up under their chins.

Upon reaching the end of the hallway, we step outside into a courtyard. To our right is a laundromat, in front of us, a clinic where doctors volunteer their time. People sit in plastic chairs or stand in small clusters. One boy kicks a football; two girls play inside a playhouse. To the side of the building, women and men stand in separate lines leading to a trailer that houses showers. Across the lot, an older man brushes his teeth at one of two sinks at a small bathhouse.

At the end of our visit, we see a young girl with a man who I presume is her father. A mask hangs loosely across her face, and she’s coughing uncontrollably. Mucus drains from her nose. Then she vomits. I don’t know what to do.

Ninety percent of the people at the respite center are from Central America, Mata says. Open since 2014, the center serves 130,000 people per year from 32 different countries.

“You go home with satisfaction,” says Mata, a full-time student, who in the same breath adds that it’s draining work.

Since our return, the respite center made the news when McAllen city commissioners denied its permit at a Feb. 11 meeting and was given 90 days to move to a new location.

Brethren in Christ Churches: Threats of violence across the border

Reynosa, Mexico

Pastor Antonio Ramirez Naranjo, president of the Brethren in Christ church in Mexico, navigates our van through the muddy streets of the outlying communities of Reynosa.

The area is prone to flooding, and recent rains have filled the streets with water as we jostle from one pothole to the next. A truck has stalled in the middle of the road, run right out of gas, and we have no choice but to back up and take the long way around to reach Templo Evangélico Pentecostés Monte Sinaí, a building painted a shade of baby blue, where Antonio has served as pastor for 15 years. Here, as a result of theft, the congregation has had to cancel their during-the-week services.

Situated on the border south of McAllen, Reynosa is the largest city in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas and one of the five most dangerous cities in Mexico.

Organized crime and drug trafficking are strong in this border city, where competition between cartels and gangs has caused fighting and violence. Drugs are moved primarily at night, meaning few people venture into the streets between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m.

In 2018, 1,000 people were either killed or disappeared here. I cannot imagine what it would be like to live in constant fear.

It is in this climate that three Brethren in Christ pastors minister. All bi-vocational, these pastors are committed to their community and seek to grow with it. Salaries run around $45 a week here.

Francisco Dominguez, BIC general secretary, tells how the church he pastors, Templo Fe Y Esperanza, a light-yellow building with bars guarding the entrance and crossing every window, began with a meeting of three families and has grown to a congregation of 120.

Dominguez focuses on the youth in the community, as the threat of violence is real. Just last year, gang members fatally shot a young man from Dominguez’s youth group as he was headed to church, mistaken for someone else. He was his parents’ only son.

 

BIC general secretary and pastor Francisco Dominguez has a heart for reaching the youth of Reynosa, Mexico, where just last year, gang members fatally shot a young man from Dominguez’s youth group. Photo: Janae Rempel

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2. How do migrants come?

While our visits to ProBAR, the Guatemalan Consulate, the humanitarian respite center and Brethren in Christ churches provided a glimpse into who is coming to the U.S. and why, visiting La Posada Providencia and the South Texas Human Rights Center showed us how migrants come to the U.S., describing what sometimes is a perilous journey.

Land on the border is controlled by drug cartels, which charge a fee for crossing their turf. A person may pay between $5,000 and $10,000 to hire a coyote smuggler to act as a guide in crossing the border. Of that sum, a coyote may get between $500 and $1,000 per person, and the rest of the money funds the cartel.

There are currently about 700 miles of wall and fencing along the nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, built primarily in places where the river or desert does not provide a natural deterrent. We see the fence as we’re driving near Brownsville, Texas, built in places where it would be easy to cross and hide in homes. In some places, the wall is more than one mile from the border, and 25 to 50 miles from the ports of entry, separating farmers from their land.

This section of the border fence in Brownsville, Texas, has an opening to allow farmers to access their land on the other side. Photo: Janae Rempel

La Posada Providencia: Perils of asylum seekers

San Benito, Texas

In the La Posada Providencia classroom, 10 pupils practice their English by introducing themselves to us. They have come to this shelter from Honduras, Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala, we learn.

Sister Zita, who is just shy of 85, guides our visit to La Posada Providencia, a shelter for asylum seekers in San Benito, Texas, located nine miles from the border.

Sister Zita guides our visit to La Posada Providencia, which serves asylum seekers unable to make contact with their sponsors. Photo: Janae Rempel

 

A sponsored ministry of the Sisters of Divine Providence, the shelter serves asylum seekers who have a destination on their papers but who are unable to make contact with their family or sponsor. Programming includes case management, local transportation, language instruction, cultural integration, life skills and self-sustainability practices.

Here, we hear stories of the perils people face on their journey to the U.S.

For example, a woman from Belize was kidnapped by Mexicans while waiting for the bus, held for ransom and tortured before escaping through an open window. For five days, she journeyed on foot and by bus with a coyote. The group created a human ladder at the border, where she sustained a broken jaw and lost consciousness after being kicked in the mouth. She awoke in pain on the other side of the fence, was apprehended by Border Patrol agents and taken to the hospital and eventually brought to La Posada, where she was able to make contact with her husband’s brother in New Jersey.

Another woman witnessed the lack of regard for human life while navigating a remote stretch of the Rio Grande Valley with a coyote. During the river crossing, alligators surrounded the group’s raft, and a menstruating woman was thrown overboard, the others hearing her scream until she died.

Delisile, or Deli, from Zimbabwe, wrote to seven shelters before coming to La Posada. A victim of rape, she was pregnant at the time. Deli went to court and was able to obtain a lawyer, whom she later named her baby son after—Emmanuel Alex, born last September. Today, Deli has a work visa and works at La Posada, where they’re teaching her to drive. During our visit, we get to meet Emmanuel Alex, whose wide eyes and wisps of dark curls capture our hearts.

Emmanuel Alex was born in September 2018 to Delisile, an asylum seeker from Zimbabwe. Photo: Janae Rempel

A former principal and teacher from St. Louis, Sister Zita is one of three sisters at La Posada. We sit in the dining area—today they’re celebrating birthdays—as she tells us that since 1989, La Posada has provided food, shelter and support to more than 10,000 immigrants and asylum seekers from more than 85 countries.

“People are not leaving to find a better life,” Sister Zita says. “They’re coming to save their life.”

Seated in the dining area of La Posada Providencia, Sister Zita tells harrowing stories asylum seekers face on the journey to the U.S. Photo: Janae Rempel

 

According to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) data, in fiscal year 2018, 42,224 asylum decisions were made. Of those cases, about 34 percent were granted asylum (14,200).

South Texas Human Rights Center: Water in the desert

Falfurrias, Texas

Mesquite trees and other brush and grasses fill the ranchland in Brooks County, Texas, where more than 100 migrant deaths have been recorded.

There’s a checkpoint near here, meaning migrants who have crossed the river and are travelling north must navigate the ranchland around the checkpoint on foot before being picked up by another vehicle on the other side. Often, a migrant will walk for days, a treacherous journey in which any number of things may prove deadly—a blister that becomes infected, sickness, dehydration or drinking contaminated water.

The power line on this Brooks County ranch serves as a marker for migrants making their way north past a nearby checkpoint. Photo: Janae Rempel

A fence juts through the property, placed here by ranchers for hunting purposes to keep game in, not to keep people out. Some wires are bent, and in other places, cut—evidence of people passing through. Because ranchers tire of patching their fences, they build ladders to help people over the fences.

Eduardo Canales guides our trip to the ranch. Director of the South Texas Human Rights Center—which was started in Falfurrias in 2013—Canales and his team work to help alleviate human suffering by, with ranchers’ permission, maintaining 160 water stations as part of an ongoing project begun in May 2018.

Each water station holds six gallons of water inside a blue, 55-gallon drum with a lid and ventilation. On the inside of the barrels, the team writes GPS coordinates and information about how to call 911.

Migrants may carry a gallon or two of water with them, but sometimes walk as many as four or five days, risking dehydration. In Brooks County, an area of 989 square miles, more than 750 migrant deaths were recorded between 2004 and 2018, including 50 in 2018.

There are 25 water stations on this ranch alone. We see two of them, including a solar-powered station designed by Trinity University students in San Antonio that weighs the water inside, allowing Canales and his team to monitor the station without leaving the office. This type of station costs about $1,000, with funding from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Volunteers track refills, checking all 160 water stations every week. From June to August 2018, the team put out 700 gallons of water, and more recently, replaced more than 200 gallons in a three-day period. Their hope is to fortify the stations and add first aid and cell phone charging stations.

“We know that we save people’s lives, (and) that we provide some relief,” Canales says.

Another component of the center’s work involves DNA testing of human remains in order to provide death certificates and closure for family members of migrants who have died. From June to November, the center averaged 63 calls per month from families inquiring about missing people. Of those, about half are still missing.

Identification is confirmed in three ways: fingerprints, dental records or DNA. If the first two methods are unavailable, skeletal remains are sent to the University of North Texas for testing. The family submits DNA, beginning a process that could take six months to a year for the DNA profile to come back.

Because no DNA tests were done from 2006 to 2013, and no funeral home records exist that indicate who was buried, or where, part of the center’s work involves exhumation.

Since 2013, the center’s teams have performed 203 exhumations, not counting skeletal remains sent voluntarily by the sheriff’s office. Of the bodies exhumed, 30 identifications have been made, and in most cases, repatriation happens. The center has currently finished exhumation in seven of 18 counties. The most recent two exhumations were based solely on the memory of the grave digger, the team using ground-penetrating radar to locate graves in the cemetery. Work continues with cemetery mapping, and with grant funding, they hope to increase staff.

 

Eduardo Canales (center) is director of the South Texas Human Rights Center, which works to alleviate human suffering through its water station project. Photo: Janae Rempel

 

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3. Stories

After learning about who comes to the U.S. and why, meeting people who have come and hearing their stories adds another layer to a growing perspective.

While Lalo Hinojosa came with his parents from Mexico as a baby, Irma Quiñones and Oscar Sanchez, came from Mexico as 18-year-olds with hope of creating a better future for their children. We sit down with them to listen.

New Life Christian Center: A place to belong

San Benito, Texas

Lalo Hinojosa, the father of our co-leader Ana Hinojosa, moved with his parents from Mexico to the Brownsville area when he was 11 months old.

Pastor of New Life Christian Center, a MCUSA church in San Benito, since 1995, Hinojosa is a green card holder, but not a U.S. citizen. His story illustrates what it’s like to be caught between two worlds on the border.

Pastor Lalo Hinojosa moved with his parents to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 11 months old. A green card holder, but not a U.S. citizen, his story illustrates the complexity of life on the border. Photo: Janae Rempel

 

As a child in school, Hinojosa was forced to write, “I must speak English” 1,000 times, and he was sent to the hall wearing donkey ears for not speaking correct English. It’s this anger at how he and others were and are treated that makes him not wish to pursue U.S. citizenship, despite not feeling a connection to Mexico, either, he says.

Called “wetbacks,” “dirty Mexicans” or “mojados,” Hinojosa and his friends used to swim across the river. In the 1950s, an open bridge allowed people to go back and forth to Mexico, but fences started going up on the border in the 1980s and 1990s.

A former gang member, Hinojosa accepted Jesus and later sensed God calling him to minister to kids in a drug-riddled neighborhood like the one from which he came, and he did so for 20 years. In addition to the pastorate, his ministry has also included providing shelter for Central American refugees.

“I taught my kids that growing up here is not fighting or discrimination because they’re white and we’re dark or brown,” Hinojosa says. “We’re all the same, and we work together. They’re human like you. We need to sit at the table.”

Pastor Lalo and Maria Hinojosa have served New Life Christian Center in San Benito, Texas, since 1995. Photo: Janae Rempel

Irma Quiñones and Oscar Sanchez : From undocumented status to residency

Brownsville, Texas

Irma Quiñones and Oscar Sanchez came to the U.S. from Mexico 13 years ago to build a better life for their children. Fearing danger, the couple did not want their children walking alone or taking the bus to school. Irma and Oscar were 18 when they came, and Irma was pregnant with the couple’s oldest daughter. In the U.S., Oscar found work in construction, earning $25 a day.

Over pizza and salad on a Thursday evening, Irma and Oscar share with us the uncertainty of living undocumented in the U.S. and how their son’s illness set off a chain of events leading first to deportation orders, then court hearings and ultimately, residency and a work permit. They received green cards just three weeks prior to our dinner.

When Irma and Oscar’s fourth child, Isaac, was 2 months old, he was diagnosed with pyloric stenosis, a condition that prevents food from leaving the stomach and leads to vomiting and dehydration. Isaac needed surgery at Driscoll Children’s Hospital in Corpus Christi, but the more than two-hour drive north required passing through a Border Patrol checkpoint. Oscar and Irma’s undocumented status made the trip impossible.

The couple suspects someone at the hospital called Border Patrol upon learning of their undocumented status, and CBP agents allowed the couple to go to Corpus Christi, following the ambulance through the checkpoint, keeping a constant watch on the couple and processing Oscar and Irma separately before Isaac went into surgery. The surgery was a success, but two weeks later, Irma and Oscar received letters of deportation.

Through a mutual acquaintance, the family connected with Ana Hinojosa, who helped Irma and Oscar obtain legal support through the National Immigrant Justice Center, and the couple went to court.

After more than a year of waiting, Irma and Oscar received a call from their attorney saying they were given residency and a work permit. The judge responded favorably in their case because Oscar and Irma’s four children are U.S. citizens, they have no criminal records, and the children are excelling in school. The case received national attention.

Today, Oscar works on South Padre Island. Irma, who currently stays home, has obtained her GED and one day hopes to work with children.

Meanwhile, Isaac is a thriving 22-month-old. He’s constantly on the move during dinner, exploring, playing peek-a-boo behind the curtains and smiling.

“For us, what looks impossible is not impossible for God,” Oscar says. “When you leave things in the hands of God, he can act in our lives.”

Read more of their story in this initial story and update from MCC.

 

Diagnosed with pyloric stenosis when he was 2 months old, Isaac’s illness set off a chain of events that led first to deportation orders for his parents, Irma and Oscar, then court hearings and ultimately, residency and a work permit. Photo: Janae Rempel

 

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4. Now what?

What I have described is not a comprehensive list of stories. There are many more layers to be added. But this is a beginning, a witness to what I have seen. Like a patchwork quilt, each piece adds a perspective toward a greater understanding of the whole.

What I hope to have communicated is the complexity of the situation at the border. There are no easy answers. I desire to be more informed and am asking more questions.

What kind of circumstances would drive people to leave their homes? I imagine most people do not wish to leave. How can we help people thrive where they are?

What can we do about organized crime—both the fear of violence causing people to flee and the funding of cartels by migrants who cross cartel territory? Certainly, drug trafficking and crime need to be addressed. What is the best way to do that? The question was asked many times, “Is a wall an effective deterrent?”

Our group spent time in prayer at the border fence near Hidalgo, Texas. Photo: Saulo Padilla

At the South Texas Human Rights Center, Eduardo Canales proposed an interesting solution for cross-border economic development that would allow a person to place a bond at the border instead of funding the cartels, receive authorization for temporary work in the U.S. and then receive their bond upon returning to Mexico.

What are the barriers to legal immigration? The U.S. quota system places annual caps on the number of immigration visas issued to people from a specific country. For those coming from Mexico, the 35-day government shutdown added four years to what was already a 20-year process to immigrate legally. Where are the pathways?

What does the Bible say? Many well-known Bible stories involve migration—people on the move. I’m revisiting familiar stories, remembering that Moses killed an Egyptian and fled to Midian, and Abraham hid his identity by calling Sarah his sister.

And finally, what is my responsibility, now that I’ve seen? It’s easy to empathize with those whose situations I understand; it’s much harder to do so with circumstances so unfamiliar to my situation. This tour shed light on something I know little about, and I’m convicted of a lack of empathy.

More than anything, the border tour caused me to see the humanitarian nature of a complex situation involving real people with names and stories. Everyone, from migrant to border patrol agent, federal judge to asylum seeker, is a person, loved by God. Do we have eyes to see and ears to hear?

And, as we listen, can we seek to understand where people are coming from—whether across borders, across neighborhoods or across the street—and work for the good of God’s children everywhere?

There are no easy answers, but listening is where it begins.

The sun sets in Hidalgo, Texas. Photo: Janae Rempel

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Janae Rempel
Janae Rempel is the Christian Leader assistant editor. She joined the CL staff in September 2017 with six years of experience as a professional journalist. Rempel, is an award-winning journalist, having received three 2016 Kansas Press Association Awards of Excellence. Rempel graduated from Tabor College in 2010 with a bachelor of arts in Communications/Journalism and Biblical/Religious Studies. She attends Hillsboro MB Church.

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